The widespread call for police officers to wear body cameras to improve fraught relations between the public and police is understandable. Proponents view body-worn cameras (BWCs) as an expedient solution amid a climate of distrust, allowing interactions with law enforcement to be filmed and available later for review if abuse of force is alleged. But the large-scale use of this technology raises a host of questions, including the impact on privacy rights and police-community relations. And it needs to be asked: Will BWCs improve police accountability?
Here comes the data. Several recent studies examined the effects body cameras have on police behavior, shedding some much needed light on this emerging trend. In cities as diverse as Phoenix, Orlando, Denver, and San Diego, researchers found that while the number of complaints against officers often dropped when cameras are rolling, other findings suggest that BWCs are easily subverted and could create unanticipated problems for those on the other end of the camera lens.
During a six month pilot study in Denver, for example, only one in five incidents involving police officers using force or non-lethal weapons like stun guns and pepper spray were captured on film. Only “21 of 80 uses of force (26%) were recorded” by BWCs, the report said. The reasons for this are many: officers say they didn’t have time to activate their camera before a situation escalated, equipment errors, the officers involved in the incident weren’t participating in the study, and officers disabling cameras after they assumed trouble had passed. Similar results turned up in Phoenix’s study: depending on the month, only “13.2 to 42.2 percent of incidents were recorded.”
The Phoenix study also reveals a troubling glimpse into a future where policing and filming become synonymous. While complaints against officers wearing body cameras dropped by 23% during the study period (versus an 11% increase in complaints for officers not wearing them), there was a major spike in arrests made by these officers- up nearly 43%. This increase is nearly triple the rate of officers not wearing cameras.
How should we interpret this finding? Some suggest that police officers wearing cameras feel compelled to follow through with the arrest to justify the interaction (like a traffic stop) in the first place, regardless of the circumstances. While footage of police abuse goes viral and drives much of the conversation around BWCs, there is a lot less scrutiny on the more mundane reality of how people- police officers, suspects, and witnesses- behave when being recorded. The Orlando study found that one in four officers believed wearing a BWC “impacted their behavior in the field.” Will officers show less discretion if they know that their actions will be reviewed by superiors back at the precinct?
It wouldn’t be the first time a policing tactic resulted in unintended and undesirable consequences. The stop-and-frisk program used by officers in New York City was introduced as a measure to improve safety in high-crime neighborhoods. Instead, it empowered police officers to harass and detain millions of mostly black and Hispanic men for decades with little probable cause. BWCs have the potential to create a similar risk under the professed purpose of reducing incidents.
In San Diego’s study of police using body worn cameras, they found a major reduction in ambiguous allegations made against officers. According to the San Diego Police Department, “citizen complaints decreased 23%, allegations decreased 44% and not sustained findings decreased by 84%.” Not sustained findings are ones where a lack of evidence makes it difficult to determine what actually happened. “By removing the ambiguity and obtaining a definitive finding it only helps to maintain and build upon our public trust,” said SD Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.
But “obtaining a definitive finding” is not as easy as it would seem.
While BWCs provide a record from the officer’s perspective, it is limited to showing only what is in front of it after the camera is turned on (a more common problem then you might think based on the findings of the pilot studies). If the officer turns her body, is walking or running, or there are different angles in the encounter, the BWC may only capture part of the picture and not the full encounter. Proper training with the equipment, a common recommendation from the studies, will be essential to get the most from these recordings.
Officers’ complaints against using the technology were covered by the studies. “Officers were dissatisfied with long down load times, increased amount of time that it took to complete reports, and the possibility that video recordings might be used against them by the department,” the Phoenix report said. It also found that “video submitted to the court was difficult to process because of logistical problems associated with chain of custody and the length of time that it took the prosecutors to review video files.” So, just because an incident is caught on film doesn’t necessarily mean it will appear in court in a timely manner.
While the debate over the use and effectiveness of body worn cameras continue, much more analysis is needed to determine their potential for improving public trust and police accountability. But this much is known: the proliferation of body work cameras will inevitably change the nature of policing in unexpected ways, quite possibly to the detriment of the citizens the cameras are intended to help.